A highly anticipated report released Friday estimated that Kansas public schools could require between $1.7 billion and $2.1 billion in additional funding. State Sen. John Doll, I-Garden City, said the implications of the study could dominate the Legislature for “the rest of time.”

The $250,000 study, commissioned by the Kansas Senate to evaluate school funding needs, indicated that even current spending goals likely won’t be enough, and State Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, says the plan going forward probably will entail the addition of about $600 million to $650 million in funding for Kansas public schools — a number along the lines of what has been projected since the beginning of the legislative session.

Jennings and Doll were discussing the school finance study during Saturday's third Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce Legislative Coffee session of the year at St. Catherine Hospital.

Jennings said those responsible for commissioning the study “wanted a different outcome than what they received.”

The funding increases recommended by the study present a conundrum for the state’s budget, and lawmakers expecting a lower estimate were shocked by the results.

Conservative Republican leaders selected Lori Taylor, a Texas A&M University professor, to give the state’s funding debacle a new assessment. This study is the result.

The findings come at a time when lawmakers have until April 30 to draft a new funding law in response to a ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court that found state funding for public schools is constitutionally inadequate.

Consequences of a rejection by the court of whatever proposal is offered are unclear but ultimately could include a halt to school funding and the possibility of school shutdowns until an adequate proposal is reached.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, issued a statement after the study was released and said additional school funding will not be possible without raising taxes and cutting budgets spanning health care, social services, transportation and higher education.

Thus, some lawmakers have been attempting to prove to the court that school funding is already adequate.

The study suggested otherwise, finding that more than $400 million in additional funding is necessary just to preserve current student achievement outcomes in reading and math.

According to the study, to raise high school graduation rates to 95 percent, a target set by former Gov. Sam Brownback during his recent State of the State address, it would cost roughly $1.8 billion in additional spending. The current graduation rate is about 86 percent. Meanwhile, it would cost almost $2.1 billion to put 60 percent of students on track for college success.

Doll, a former teacher, said the Legislature doesn’t have the kind of money called for in the study, adding that this year’s session will be remembered as a historic one.

“The thing is, we need to finish these lawsuits,” Doll said, referring to the Gannon v. Kansas school funding case that created this obstacle for state lawmakers, along with a previous case that served as a prelude to the current situation. “We need to get something in place so we don’t continue to have these lawsuits.”

Jennings said it’s still too early to know exactly what the study will mean for a policy solution, but he asserted that the issue of school funding should be less about a constitutional requirement identified by the Kansas Supreme Court and more about outcomes for kids.

Jennings noted that not all of the results were so dire, as the study suggests school districts statewide are operating at upwards of 96 percent efficiency when measured against delivering desired outcomes, “which is an educated student.”

“So they are not, per se, inefficient, and to the extent that any are inefficient, it’s not enough to make up the difference between what is funded and what is lacking,” Jennings said.

The study also examined ways by which outcomes could be evaluated and accountability for individual schools could be imposed.

“There’s no question we need to have accountability,” Jennings said, adding that school boards must be more proactive in ensuring that school leadership is strong, possibly by replacing administrators who aren't doing enough to ensure positive student outcomes.  

The implications of the study echo previous findings and present a potential wakeup call for lawmakers resistant to fiscal change, given that even the preservation of existing outcomes are projected to require a bigger investment.

“This study has really determined that $451 million would be the bottom amount of additional funds necessary to sustain the outcome level that we have today, and the outcome level that we have today has been determined by the Supreme Court to be inadequate,” Jennings said. “There will be those that say ($450 million) is enough to get the job done. It will not be.”

Other peer-reviewed studies have indicated that adequate funding would require upwards of $600 million in additional spending.

The study released yesterday, Jennings said, shows that for every 1 percent increase to the graduation rate, about 5 percent more in funding would be required. With that metric in mind, he said, the 95 percent target is “unachievable" at this time.

“If we just want to go up 3 or 4 percent, you’re talking about $200 million more than what we’re spending right now, plus the ($450 million) to maintain stability,” Jennings said. “That’s that $600 million number. So we kind of keep getting back to that if you really look at it and think it through; $650 million is a lot of money.”

All things considered, Jennings said the Legislature has demonstrated a lack of ability for decades in sustaining and executing long-term plans.

“Now, we’re just going to keep trudging along and doing what we’re doing,” he said.

 

 Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.